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Practice pronouncing English words and phrases

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Like all languages, English has its own unique set of sounds (called a phonology). Although many of the English sounds may be the same (or almost the same) as in your native language, many are different.

If you want to speak English well, you cannot pronounce English words using the sounds of your native language. If you do so, your English will be difficult to understand. For example, if your native language does not have the /θ/ sound, you cannot just replace it with /t/ or /s/. If you do, your thin will sound like tin or sin.

Therefore, you have to:

  1. know all the English sounds
  2. listen to how they sound in real words and sentences
  3. practice your pronunciation — listen to English words and phrases, and try to repeat them as well as you can

How to practice pronouncing English words

There are two main ways in which you should practice pronouncing English words:

  1. “Official” practice. From time to time, sit down with the specific goal of practicing pronunciation. Play some recordings of words and phrases in your preferred dialect of English and repeat what you hear. This doesn’t have to take a long time — 10-15 minutes will do. Where to find good recordings of words and phrases? See below.
  2. Incidental practice. You should regularly try to pronounce English words during other activities, e.g. while watching TV, listening to an audiobook, waiting for the bus, taking a shower, reading something on the Web, etc. (Of course, before you practice a word, make sure you know how it should be pronounced; if you don’t, look it up in a dictionary.)

Tools for “official” practice

Where to get recordings for your pronunciation practice sessions?

Pronunciation training websites/software. These self-study tools generally provide the following:

  • a list of English sounds, with many recorded words for each sound
  • tips on how to pronounce the sounds
  • recordings of “minimal pairs”: two words with similar, but different sounds, e.g. dip/deep, bed/bad
  • recordings of phrases and sentences for practicing a sound (or several sounds)
  • videos showing the proper position of the mouth and tongue (I have never found these anatomical details helpful, but your mileage may vary)

These tools are not essential — you could just use a dictionary with audio recordings instead — but they can certainly be helpful. The best free pronunciation training websites are Rachel’s English (American) and BBC Learning English (British). For learners of American English, there is also the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary with some free pronunciation exercises.

General dictionaries. Virtually all modern software dictionaries have audio recordings of English words, and therefore can be used for practicing pronunciation. Among the dictionaries on DVD-ROM that I tested in 2009, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) had the best quality of recordings for both American and British English. It is also the only dictionary which contains recordings of whole sentences. Among free online dictionaries, the ones with the best quality of recordings (as of 2011) seem to be the Cambridge Dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary.

Pronunciation dictionaries. The best one (as of 2011) is the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by JC Wells (see my review), though it isn’t much better for practicing pronunciation than the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. In fact, most of the recordings are the same in both dictionaries.

Tips for practicing English pronunciation

  • It’s not so important to spend a lot of time practicing; it’s more important to do it regularly. In my experience, instead of practicing for three hours, it is better to practice for 10 minutes and then start again the next day after a good night’s sleep. You cannot rush things. Your brain needs time (and sleep) to get used to the new sounds. English-speaking children need many years to learn to pronounce all the English sounds properly. For example, one study found that 25% of Australian 5-year-olds did not pronounce /r/ correctly.
  • When doing “official” practice with pronunciation software or a website, don’t spend too much time practicing one sound. When you find that you are no longer making any progress on a particular sound, move on to the next one, or end your practice session. You will often find that the sound has become easier when you come back to it the next day.
  • Some English sounds take months to learn, others can be learned in a day. For example, many learners find that they can learn /θ/ and /ð/ very quickly, as these sounds don’t require a lot of precision — you just put your tongue between your teeth and blow. Pronouncing these sounds is largely a matter of attention: you have to make sure you don’t replace them with /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /f/ or /v/. To take another example, when I was learning pronunciation, mastering /θ/, /ð/ and /ŋ/ took no practice at all, /æ/ and /ʃ/ took about a month, while /ɑː/, /eəʳ/ and /ʊəʳ/ took more than a year.
  • In the beginning, speak slowly, make pauses between words, and exaggerate the sounds. By “exaggeration”, I mean that you should put in more effort than usual to pronounce the sounds especially clearly. Whenever there is a long vowel like /iː/, make it especially long. Open your mouth wide for open vowels /æ ɑː ɒ/. If you have a problem with de-voicing consonants at the end of a word (speakers of Polish, German, Russian, etc.), voice final /b d g v z ð ʒ/ especially strongly to make them really different from /p t k f s θ ʃ/.
  • You will need at least some talent for imitating sounds (for instance, if you can imitate people in your own language, it should be easy for you to imitate English pronunciation as well). However, if you don’t have these skills, you can achieve a lot with persistence and a little technology. One helpful technique is to record your voice and compare it with the correct pronunciation. This way, you can see where your pronunciation is different from the original and you can gradually make it more native-like.
  • Learn about the typical mistakes made by speakers of your native language. For example, Hungarian does not have the /w/ sound, so Hungarians often substitute it with /v/ when they speak English. In French, the letter h is silent, so French people have a tendency to say abit instead of habit; or they overcorrect, and pronounce /h/ in those English words in which it is silent (e.g. they pronounce hour /haʊəʳ/ instead of /aʊəʳ/). Swedish does not have /z/, so Swedes tend to pronounce eyes /aɪs/ (like ice) instead of /aɪz/. This Wikipedia page has decent information on mistakes made by speakers of several languages.
  • Find someone who speaks your native language with a British or American accent. Try to imitate the way he/she speaks your native language. It will help you see the differences between the sounds of English and your native language. It may also help you imitate the intonation more easily. (See this article and this forum topic.)
  • Here’s a technique for the linguists among you: study the English vowel chart and compare it with the vowel chart for your native language. For example, here is the English vowel chart next to the Polish vowel chart:

    A word of caution: comparing different vowel charts can be tricky. The reason is that there is no precise, universal definition of what different points on the chart sound like. If you ask three phoneticians “what does an open-back rounded vowel sound like?”, you may get three slightly different answers. For example, listen to this recording of the open-back rounded vowel (lower-right corner of the chart) by three renowned phoneticians: Wells, Ramsaran and Ladefoged. So when you’re looking at a German vowel chart that puts German /ɔ/ on the open-mid line, you can’t be sure that the line means exactly the same thing as the open-mid line on the English vowel chart.

    Looking at the above charts can give you a rough idea of how English sounds are pronounced (1) relative to each other and (2) relative to Polish sounds. For example, it can tell you that:

    • to pronounce /ʌ/, you should say something between /ə/ (away) and /a/ (five)
    • although dictionaries use separate symbols for the vowel in away /ə/ and in turn /ɜ/, the vowels really sound the same — you shouldn’t try to pronounce them differently
    • to pronounce /æ/, you need to say something between /ɛ/ (ten) and /a/ (kat)
    • the /a/ in English fly is basically the same as the /a/ in Polish kat
    • /ɪ/ is something between /i/ (see, miś) and /ɨ/ (syn)
    • the English /ɔ/ is Polish /ɔ/ with a hint of /u/

    All these are helpful hints that can help you get the sounds right, although of course there is no substitute for attentive listening.